This Halloween, dive into the rich history of queer horror films.
Throughout cinema history, queer characters have struggled to tell their stories onscreen. From 1934 to 1968, Hollywood movies were shaped by the Production Code (more commonly known as the Hays Code), which banned explicit references to homosexuality. However, some filmmakers found creative ways to subvert the system.
Queer characters have existed in horror movies for longer than you might think, although early examples were shackled to subtext or forced to follow problematic tropes. There's a queer history in the world of horror, from the queer-coded monsters of the 1930s, through the lethal lesbians of the 1970s, to the binary-breaking body horror of the 2020s.
Following the events of Frankenstein (1931), Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) attempts to abandon his previous plans to create life. However, when he is forced to work alongside his old mentor and mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), the duo begin to construct a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for the Monster (Boris Karloff).
As a result of Thesiger’s high-camp performance, Dr. Pretorius is one of the most queer-coded characters created under the Hays Code when explicitly acknowledging homosexuality was not allowed. Furthermore, in The Bride of Frankenstein, it is the Monster who becomes the selfless hero, a trope in early queer horror. Audiences are encouraged to identify with the queer monster as opposed to traditional heterosexual heroes.
Serbian immigrant and fashion illustrator Irena (Simone Simon) is descended from an ancient tribe of "Cat People" who transform into murderous panthers when their desire is awakened. Although she meets and marries an American man (Kent Smith), Irena is afraid of intimacy, pushing her husband into another woman's arms (Jane Randolph).
Irena’s reluctance to be intimate with her husband can be read as a repressed lesbian desire. In addition to her alienation from being an immigrant in America, Irena is further isolated by her inability to consummate a heterosexual marriage. Cat People remains an iconic entry into the queer horror canon for exploring identity, sexuality, and societal pressure.
The cruel and abusive headmaster of a Parisian boarding school (Paul Meurisse) is murdered by an unlikely duo: his frail, chronically ill wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and his magnetic mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). The equally-mistreated women form an uneasy alliance, and together they concoct a meticulously-designed revenge plot.
Diabolique is famous for its masterful use of suspense, iconic twist ending, and influence on Alfred Hitchcock. However, the film also has a lesser-known queer history, which goes back to its source material, the 1952 French novel She Who Was No More, in which the two female killers were explicitly lovers. Although the film attempted to straight-wash the story, Diabolique is drowning in lesbian subtext.
En route to England after their elopement, Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) pass through an extravagant, deserted seaside hotel. That same night, the Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory (Delphine Seyrig) arrives with her protégé Ilona (Andrea Rau). When the honeymooning couple crosses paths with the mysterious countess, virgin corpses drained of their blood appear around the city.
As far back as the 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla, lesbians have frequently been portrayed as vampires. With the dissolution of the Hays Code in 1968, the 1970s saw an influx of cinematic queers, including the iconic lesbian vampire. Daughters of Darkness is an artistic example of the popular subgenre, which critic Camille Paglia grouped into the category of “psychological high Gothic” in her book Sexual Personae.
Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon), a wide-eyed newly engaged couple, seek shelter from the rain in a nearby castle after their car breaks down. Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), the head of the household and cross-dressing mad scientist, invites his guests to the unveiling of his “creation”: a blond-haired, muscular man named Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is considered one of the queerest movies ever made. Tim Curry delivers a gloriously camp performance as the “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” who can seduce even the most vanilla, heterosexual men and women. Many cinemas will be screening this queer cult classic on Halloween night, so if you can track down a ticket, the night will be forever remembered.
Based on a true crime story out of New Zealand, Heavenly Creatures is a sapphic coming-of-age story about a pair of lethal lesbians. When Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) befriends Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), the two teenage girls develop an intense obsession, which culminates in the murder of Pauline’s mother after she dares to separate them.
Although the depiction of angry queer killers does play into problematic stereotypes, Juliet and Pauline’s rage could be interpreted as a righteous response in the face of oppression. While the debate surrounding “good” versus “bad” representation is valuable, it can overshadow other elements of the film. Heavenly Creatures is also a celebration of the rich, interior worlds that queer people can create.
High school is hard enough without your best friend becoming a man-eating succubus. After a satanic ritual gone wrong, high school cheerleader Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) must feed on her male classmates’ flesh to remain young and beautiful. It’s up to Needy (Amanda Seyfried) to save the day if only she can sort out her definitely-not-platonic feelings first.
Jennifer’s Body was a box office bomb back in 2009, partly due to the movie’s marketing which screenwriter Diablo Cody claims was “all wrong.” Instead of highlighting the film’s focus on sapphic female friendship, producers targeted straight teenage boys. However, Jennifer’s Body has since been reclaimed as a feminist, queer, cult classic in the wake of the MeToo movement.
Queer high school student and rebellious outcast Mäddy (Caitlin Stasey) shocks her classmates by joining the cheerleading squad in a long-con effort to take down the star football player (Tom Williamson) but ends up falling for his girlfriend (Brooke Butler) instead. After a tragic accident claims the lives of several cheerleaders, Mäddy’s witchy ex-girlfriend (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) raises the dead from their graves, creating a hoard of vengeful zombie cheerleaders.
All Cheerleaders Die is a trashy teen horror-comedy with the perfect blend of camp and gore, which deserves as big a cult following as Jennifer’s Body. If you ignore the supernatural elements, it's a tale of enduring lesbian love and vengeance against the men who wronged them.
Struggling to raise her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), widowed single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) discovers a strange pop-up storybook about Mister Babadook. When their house becomes haunted by a mysterious presence, Samuel is convinced that the monster is real.
While The Babadook may not immediately come to mind when thinking of iconic queer horror movies, the titular monster is a contemporary gay icon. When a screenshot popped up showing the movie categorized by Netflix as an LGBT film, queer readings of The Babadook (dubbed as “Babadiscourse”) poured in, most tongue-in-cheek, but some serious. In June 2017, The Babadook was embraced as a symbol of that year’s Pride Month. As summed up by E. Alex Jung for Vulture, “This year: The B in LGBTQ stands for Babadook. Happy Pride!”
After being injured in a road accident as a child, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) has a titanium plate fitted into her head which only serves to fuel her disturbing obsession with cars. On the run from a past that is catching up to her, Alexia assumes the identity of a missing boy and develops a complicated relationship with his father (Vincent Lindon).
As Drew Burnett Gregory writes in her review for Autostraddle, Titane is a “boundary-pushing, binary-breaking work of queer body horror.” Whether between male and female, or flesh and metal, Titane blurs the boundaries between hetero-cis-normative binaries. It is through the destruction of binaries that director Julia Ducournau discovers an empathy that transcends boundaries.
KEEP READING: 10 Queer Horror Movies That Make You Question Who The Actual Monster Is
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